EFAC Australia

Strange Days:
Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval.
Mark Sayers, Moody Publishers, 2017

In Strange Days, Mark Sayers starts with a personal story that captures the uncertainty and fear of our modern world. After smoothly flying to Europe over various conflict hotspots he finds out:

‘Another Malaysian Airlines jet has gone down—shot down, I’d later learn, over a conflict zone. The plane had been traveling opposite of mine, at roughly the same time, filled with fellow Australians and other nationalities. Torn from the sky. That thin skin, that fragile membrane of security peeled away. I shake my head. The world is going mad.’

It’s a compelling opening. Despite all the benefits of technology and travel, life appears chaotic and insecure. What are Christians to make of this age of terrorism and political dysfunction? How should we respond to the flood of social media and radical changes of globalization? Strange Days aims to help Christians think about this world in flux. Sayers writes:

‘My goal is to grasp our cultural moment, to help you understand its landscape. There is a pattern to the chaos, and what is more, there is a door out, into the holy expanse that is life in the Spirit.’

The book does this in 3 parts. Parts 1 and 2 consider the Biblical and historical patterns of chaos. Part 3 then explores the Christian response to this time of upheaval: the ‘Life in the Spirit’ of the book’s subtitle.

Is this book brilliant or flawed? I found it hard to decide. Sayers’ dense writing, so arresting in the introduction, became wearying as the book went on and I wished for a more plain style, even if it took more words. Some sentences offered profound insight into our culture and context, but it seemed that every sentence was written as if I should consider it profound, until I couldn’t tell if it was anymore. The book interprets the upheaval of our times as a striving for a sense of place, but I found myself questioning whether this interpretive lens was correct. Surely it is unlikely that the chaos of our world can be neatly slotted into a single overarching narrative?

Unfortunately, that narrative is assumed more than argued for. The book gives only sixteen pages to Part 1, which means the biblical data that the rest of the book builds upon is poorly sketched. Was Cain’s building of a city in Genesis 4:16-17 really ‘an attempt to carve out meaning and legacy apart from God’? Perhaps, but the point isn’t adequately explained. Much of the use of the Bible felt deductive rather than inductive. As a result, I found myself unconvinced that the categories of place, sacrifice and purity really provided the right lens through which to see our tumultuous world.

There are both strengths and weaknesses in Sayers’ historical analysis. The reflection on the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise of the age of optimism is excellent. It helped me understand more about the origins of globalization and the achievement culture we now live in. However, his depiction of online environments as ‘non-places’ is disappointing. Along with communal, commercial spaces like cafes and airports, he presents them negatively: ‘There is no shared identity there, no story in the soil, no legends of a people or group.’ And yet, many in today’s world feel otherwise and genuinely find a home and relationships there. Are there not some aspects of the online world that are redeemable and good for the believer? I wanted Strange Days to dig deeper into questions like this.

In the end, Strange Days would have been better if it had been longer. A longer book would have allowed for more detailed exegesis of critical Bible passages, more sustained and convincing arguments, a simpler writing style and allowed greater scope for unpacking complexity rather than forcing evidence to fit particular categories. Nevertheless, Sayers’ final landing point is tremendous. In the midst of the confusion of our age, he directs Christians towards deep discipleship that looks to the word of God, prioritizes the fellowship of the church, rejects the influence of the world and so stands as salt and light, holding out the joy-giving gospel of Jesus.

Jeff Hunt, WA